Holly Warlick happy with defense
Tennessee watched an instructional video this week of how not to play against Auburn.
The Lady Vols likely were squirming in the seats during the viewing. After all, they were the stars of the show.
They took the Thompson-Boling Arena court for Thursday night’s rematch as if they compiled a checklist of how not to repeat their performance. They marked off all the essentials, finishing with an 83-61 SEC women’s basketball victory.
Before a crowd of 10,806, Meighan Simmons led five double-figure scorers for No. 11 Tennessee (21-5, 12-1 SEC) with 24 points.
Tyrese Tanner topped Auburn (14-12, 3-10) with 20 points.
The biggest difference between the victory and the Lady Vols’ 75-66 comeback win in the first meeting on Jan. 17 at Auburn, Ala., was a fast start.
“The energy that we had, that dictates the score,” UT’s Cierra Burdick said. “I mean if we come out positive and energetic and just fired up, you’re going to see that on the court.”
Tennessee bolted to a 33-7 lead as its defense kept pace with the offense for a change. The Lady Vols helped Auburn get started on its 20 turnovers. They also got to work on season highs for assists (24) and 3-pointers (nine).
The opening reflected a difference in personnel that was evident throughout the game.
Auburn was playing without starting point guard Najat Ouardad. The SEC’s leader in assists, who had eight in the first game against Tennessee, was out with an ankle injury.
Without her, Auburn committed five turnovers inside the first five minutes. Point guard stand-in Hasina Muhammad was charged with three. Two of them were steals by Simmons, who finished with a career-high five.
“We didn’t look very controlled,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “We looked panicked a little bit.”
While Auburn was missing its floor general, Tennessee was benefiting from Burdick. She missed the first meeting with a fractured right hand. The sophomore forward was instrumental in the Lady Vols reversing their rebounding struggles against the Tigers, who previously had outscored them in second-chance points, 16-5.
Burdick’s career-high 13 rebounds led UT’s 44-30 advantage. She also scored 15 points, recording her third double-double of the season and her first since missing eight games with the injury.
“Yes, I finally can smile after the game,” she said. “It’s kind of like a sigh of relief. I finally just came out and played the way I feel like I’m capable of playing.”
While UT was unable to sustain its defensive start, the offense saw the outcome through to the finish.
Point guard Ariel Massengale completed her first career double-double with 10 points and 10 assists.
Simmons and Taber Spani had four 3-pointers apiece. Spani shot 6-for-10 from the floor in scoring 16 points.
Tennessee’s other double-figure scorer was Bashaara Graves, who had 14 points. The freshman forward also recorded nine rebounds, five assists and three steals.
The Lady Vols survived 11 second-half turnovers to lead by as many as 31 points with 3:40 left. More importantly, the team that trailed by 12 points with 14:29 left on Jan. 17 never trailed in the rematch.
“Best team effort we have had in a very long time, if not the best,” UT coach Holly Warlick said.
The only real damper was freshman Jasmine Jones missing the second half with an undisclosed injury. She left before halftime after being hit in the face.
“From what I understand, she just got her nose hit and it was a precaution,” Warlick said. “I think she’ll be fine, but I’m sure they’ll evaluate her.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http;//blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.